The future of a country can be shaped in many ways, big and small. Makaziwe Mandela and Tukwini Mandela—daughter and granddaughter, respectively, of South Africa's former president and global icon Nelson Mandela—are hoping that their new wine project will help further the evolution of the country's fine-wine industry, so that more black South Africans are reaping the benefits of its growth, making and enjoying the top bottlings.
Makaziwe and Tukwini visited the United States this past week to introduce their House of Mandela Wines, launched in South Africa in 2010, to American consumers—first at the 2013 South Beach Wine and Food Festival, then at a Feb. 26 event in New York. They are releasing two tiers of reds and whites—the Royal Reserve, priced from $30 to $50, and Thembu, from $13 to $16. Once the business is profitable, they plan to donate from 5 to 15 percent of the proceeds to charitable efforts related to education, health, agriculture and alternative energy in South Africa.
“The history of the wine industry in South Africa is really white male-dominated. Very few blacks have entered the industry, and very few women,” said Makaziwe Mandela. Her family decided to enter the wine business after their research showed how much it contributes to South Africa's economy: The industry is valued at $3 billion and employs about 450,000 South African workers; however, fewer than 2 percent of the exported wines were made by black South Africans, according to Selena Cuffe, president of Mandela's U.S. importer, Heritage Link Brands.
The Mandelas are not farming an estate of their own, but working with well-established wineries and their own winemaker to create wines that reflect their personal taste and family values. To get the project underway, the Mandelas partnered with wine consultant Lynne Sherriff, who looked for wineries based on specific criteria, in addition to high quality. “We want [to work with] family-owned wineries,” explained Tukwini Mandela. “We want wineries that treat their employees with dignity and respect, that pay their employees well; we want wineries that respect the soil, that are going to maintain the biodiversity of South Africa for future generations.”
Out of 33 producers, they chose three to start their Royal Reserve Collection: Hartenberg for Cabernet Sauvignon, Thelema for Chardonnay and Fairview for Shiraz.
Tukwini Mandela said that the next logical step was to create the more accessible Thembu line, which is named after the tribe of their family and is certified by Fair Trade USA. It encompasses three whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc) and three reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage), made in conjunction with Citrusdal, a cooperative in which the growers have an ownership stake. “In terms of the societal issues in South Africa, and the political issues, we want to contribute to creating a very vibrant wine industry, and a very diverse wine industry,” said Tukwini. The premiums that producers pay for Fair Trade go to support the growers and local community, used for projects such as improvements to education and health care.
Diversity, said Makaziwe Mandela, is something that the pair hopes to improve in other ways as well. The women plan to start a scholarship through the House of Mandela Foundation that will be geared toward disadvantaged students from different ethnic groups who aspire to study enology.
They also hope to demystify wine for South Africans. Makaziwe noted that the domestic consumption of wine in South Africa is still rather low, though it’s rapidly growing in black communities, as the middle class grows. “The wine industry has realized that it’s neglected a huge market, which is black consumers,” she said, adding, "We want people to know that anyone can enjoy wine."
The concept for the House of Mandela company is deeply rooted in the Mandela family history, and the women emphasize their focus on tradition and custom in the creation of what they hope to be a uniquely South African product. “One of the things that we said to ourselves,” said Makaziwe Mandela, “[is that] if we ever went into a commercial venture we would want to use our family logo, which is the bee, and we would tell our story as the House of Mandela, and to share some of the values that have shaped my dad, which were taken from his ancestors.”
The Royal Collection labels feature the bee logo created for her father's 85th birthday; it's the family's totem symbol. When Nelson Mandela was released from jail and returned to his ancestral home, the story goes, he was followed all the way from the airport by a swarm of bees, welcoming him. The labels on the Thembu wines are inspired by the colorful dashiki shirts that Mandela preferred as a leader, to make him look more accessible than a suit would. (Nelson Mandela is not personally involved with the project, but has given it his support.)
While the Mandelas say they have been happy with the initial response to the wines in South Africa, they hope that the launch of the brand in the United States will help to raise the profile of South African wine as a whole. “Our intention from the beginning was to showcase the best of what South Africa has to offer and, in a sense, of what Africa has to offer," said Makaziwe. "Africa is not just about poverty, not just about wars, not just a dark continent—it is a very bright, warm continent that can produce the best of what the world wants.”